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A new racism in our kids’ schools

This is a guest post by Brian Henry

On May 5, an American, Tim Wise, was a keynote speaker at the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB’s) Futures Conference on Equity and Inclusive Education.

Wise is a card-carrying member of the American far left and doesn’t believe Israel has any right to exist.

Moreover, he frequently writes for the far left magazine Counterpunch. This magazine also publishes articles by the Holocaust denier Israel Shamir, by Gilad Atzmon who suggests that “maybe Hitler was right,” and by James Petras who believes that the “Zionist power configuration” controls America.

Strange company for a man who calls himself an anti-racist. But in truth, Wise’s mission is to emphasize racial divisions, not bridge them. On May 5, he lectured Canadian teachers about the evils of “white privilege.”

In his essays, Wise explains white privilege thus: “The concept is rooted in the common-sense observation that there can be no down without an up.” Or if blacks are underprivileged, whites must be “overprivileged.”

To illustrate, Wise gives a laundry list of supposed white privileges, including “not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.”

Note that these privileges are defined negatively. Obviously, stereotyping is wrong. But how does not being stereotyped amount to a privilege? Or if blacks are deprived of dignity, are we to understand that whites must have too much of it, as if there’s just so much human dignity to go around?

Of course some people do come from a privileged background. I’d say that President Obama’s kids have a leg up on most people – and good for them! Life’s too short to worry about other people’s luck.

But the notion of white privilege is disconnected from any actual privilege. A poor white kid with a single mom on welfare may not have breakfast, but theoretically he has a whole knapsack of privileges: male privilege, hetero privilege, ablest privilege – you name it.

Theorists of privilege fall into such absurdities because they discard individuals and see only groups; thus if some whites have been racists, all whites – you, me and our grand kids – are accountable for it.

So, for example, in “Of National Lies and Racial America,” Wise writes: “For most white folks, indignation just doesn’t wear well.”

Why? Because whites are morally compromised by the “genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans.” Obviously, no whites living today committed these crimes but other white people did and so, by the raced-based logic of privilege, whites today bear the responsibility.

Unfortunately, inviting Wise isn’t a one off for the Toronto District School Board. Much worse, the Board incorporates the notion of privilege into the curriculum with learning resources such as the “GLSEN Jump Start Guide: Examining Power, Privilege and Oppression.”

The literature on white privilege notes that students resist the concept. Sociologists Dan Pence and Arthur Fields write: “White students often react to in-class discussions about white privilege with a continuum of behaviors ranging from outright hostility to a ‘wall of silence.’”

Pence and Fields never consider that the students may correctly perceive themselves to be under racist attack.

The GLSEN guide recommended by the Toronto Board instructs teachers to solicit confessions from students about “the times that they have been oppressive or have used their privilege over someone else.”

Doubtless, our kids find it hard to come up with suitable sins. To help them, the guide gives an example: planning “a trip together without recognizing that one member of the group cannot afford to participate.”

That may not sound like oppression to me and you, but it’s all grist for teaching our kids that they’re part of a system of oppression that has produced every crime from slavery to genocide. The GLSEN guide observes that students may feel guilty. What a surprise!

Things may get worse. Professors at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and the departments of education at York and Ryerson universities are busily lecturing student teachers on the ideology of white privilege.

This hit the news back in 2010 when the media noticed that OISE had granted a student a master’s degree for a thesis denouncing Jews as privileged and racist, and Holocaust education as a Zionist plot. (Read the Toronto Star’s report on the scandal here, Werner Cohn’s essay on the scandal here, and his follow-ups here.)

It should come as no surprise that theorists who divides people into oppressed and oppressor groups, into good races and bad should put Jews in the bad column, particularly as the further to the left one goes, the more common it is to find people examining race through the lens of oppression and privilege.

As a parent of two kids in a Toronto public school, I’m glad to say that Toronto School Board truly does support equality for all our students, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation  – and generally gets things right. But because it supports equality, the Board needs to expel the notion of white privilege.

P.S. If Tim Wise has ever given two minutes thought to Canada, it’s not evident from his writings, but no one should doubt his talents as a speaker. At the TDSB’s Futures Conference, he reportedly compared being a person of colour to a disability, castigated Canadians for pervasive racism, and received a standing ovation. You can read a report on his talk here.

A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally published in the Jewish Tribune.